September 24, 2007

Tainted leader picked tainted leader

Scrutiny continues for SmithsonianIn August 2001, Indian Country Today columnist Rebecca Adamson wrote a bitingly satirical take on an original Architectural Digest article focusing on "one of the largest collections of Amazonian tribal art in private hands, conserving many valuable examples of a folk art form that is rapidly disappearing." The private hands were Lawrence Small's. Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian paid no attention to an Indian protest, and Small later proved to have been abetting the rapid disappearance of Amazonian tribal art ("folk art") by illegally possessing the feathers of endangered bird species. He pleaded guilty to federal misdemeanor charges and performed community service in retribution. His Smithsonian tenure deteriorated from there to the point that a June 2007 Independent Review Committee report described the relationship between Small and the Smithsonian's governing regents in terms befitting a ringleader and his racketeers: "Over the years, Mr. Small placed too much emphasis on his compensation and expenses. Rather than seeing this as an indication of the need for careful oversight, the Regents involved in Mr. Small's compensation, to the contrary, became complicit in Mr. Small's desire to maximize his personal income and have the Smithsonian pay his expenses."

Sheila P. Burke, chief operating officer and deputy secretary of the Smithsonian under Small, earned more than $10 million in cash and stocks from corporate service while working for Small. She also joined Small in "a level of absenteeism" the review committee sharply criticized, working at the Smithsonian as second-in-command only three days out of every four. Her compensation and leave arrangements with the Smithsonian were known only to Small, who did not disclose the financial disclosure forms she completed, according to the Independent Review Committee.

Beginning in December 2006, Burke headed the search committee that ultimately recommended Gover to Cristian Samper as the next executive director at NMAI, following the impending retirement of inaugural director W. Richard West in November. (Samper, acting executive secretary of the Smithsonian since Small's departure, has the last word in hiring Smithsonian unit museum executives.) Small, already discredited for his Amazonian tribal art collection and his travel expenses, resigned in March 2007 after a Washington Post series exposed further shortcomings of his stewardship at the world's largest museum complex. But even after the June IRC report likened Burke's "level of absenteeism" and lofty compensation to Small's, Burke continued to head the search committee for West's replacement at NMAI.

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